[Motivational Intro Music]
Chelsea: Have you ever trained for a competition, drilling a dance routine over and over, only to have the dancers make a big mistake onstage that came out of nowhere? It feels so frustrating when you think you’ve done all you can to help your dancers be prepared. The routine looks amazing in rehearsals, and then something happens, and it’s just not up to par onstage, it’s just not their best. Well, let’s talk about how to fix that!
Welcome to the Passion for Dance podcast, the show for passionate dance teachers and coaches. I’m Dr. Chelsea. My mission is to change the dance industry by creating happier, more successful dancers through positive mental skills training. One way to be more successful is to train and perform consistently.
A dancer gains so much confidence when they know that they will get up onstage or get out on the field, and there’s no doubt that the routine will look amazing. There is something you can do to increase your dancers’ chances for success onstage. So listen in and let me explain how you can help your dancers use their habit brain to be more successful this competition season.
[Motivational Intro Music]
Welcome to the Passion for Dance podcast. I’m Dr. Chelsea, a former professional dancer and dance team coach turned sport psychologist. This podcast focuses on four main pillars: motivation, resilience, mindset, and community. Each week, you’ll learn actionable strategies, mindsets, and tips to teach your dancers more than good technique. This is a podcast where we can all make a lasting impact and share our passion for dance. Let’s do this!
[Motivational Intro Music]
Unlike other sports, competition dance teachers don't get to coach during the game, so to speak. Instead, you have to watch from the side, maybe peeking out behind the wings, maybe from a music booth, maybe out in the audience. But you can't interact with your dancers in a meaningful way during the performance, like other sport coaches do. We don't have an opportunity to say, “Run a play,” talk to them, and then run another one. They go out and do the whole routine, so we just have to watch and hope our dancers can perform under pressure. You have to just hope and pray they don't make a mistake in those two minutes that they have to prove themselves. When they don't, when they make a mistake onstage, sometimes they choke, and of course, like many of us, I have a choking story. If you’ve coached long enough, you've probably experienced a similar competition nightmare. Here’s what happened.
My Coaching Competition Nightmare – 2:29
The team takes the floor. They're ready to compete. I said my final words of encouragement that I always say right before they take the stage. I walk around to the floor to my designated corner where I’m allowed to watch. They take their first formation. All I can do is hold my breath and watch. I don't think I breathe or blink for two minutes. I constantly scan the whole routine, watching everyone. “Did she remember that change? Did she hit that line? Did that transition work smoothly? Did she remember to straighten her leg?” Constantly for two minutes, I just watched from the side and hoped no one makes a big mistake.
And then I see it out of the corner of my eye, and my stomach drops. It’s something simple, a skill we’d done many times, but there was a small formation change because of a last-minute injury. So one girl was so focused on the new formation that she misses the skill, even though it was pretty easy, so the whole thing doesn't hit. Overall, it’s just one skill. But I know in my heart the championship just slipped through our fingers. Things are that close.
For me, especially as a younger teacher, that’s when the self-blame starts. “I let them down. How could I have better prepared them? How could I have helped make sure that mental mistake doesn't happen again?” Now I know better, and while I can't help them mentally prepare for every situation, looking back with my more seasoned teaching glasses and my sport psychology expertise, I know there wasn't much I could have done to better prepare that specific year, or really much the dancer could have done.
Mental Skill: Overlearning – 3:57
However, there is something you can do to dramatically reduce the chance of a mental break or choking on a competition or in a performance. Psychologists call this skill overlearning. It’s a simple idea with some pretty amazing neuroscience behind it. Overlearning is when you continue to practice a skill after you already have it mastered, and your improvement has plateaued, but you keep going.
For many athletes, once they get a skill they think, “Okay, I’ve got it! Now I can do this every time.” Sometimes that’s true, and you really get a skill down pretty solid, but that doesn't mean you can do it consistently. Is it perfectly automatic? Probably not. Once you’ve mastered a skill, you’ve learned the proper motor coordination to do it, the proper way to make your body work together. But science suggests you should keep practicing long after your performance has plateaued, long after it’s not really getting any better because only then is it actually making a difference in your brain.
Motor Programs – 4:56
When you learn a new movement, it’s stored in your memory in the form of a plan or a program for that movement. Scientists call them motor programs. Motor programs store the information necessary for performing that skill and make it available for later retrieval, like when you need it on the competition floor. You probably have a motor program for a battement or a pirouette. You have a plan and a program set up for that movement, so your body knows what to do. You’ve trained it so much your muscles learned exactly where to be, how to coordinate together, you know the proper alignment, and you know how to execute the skill.
Think of it like calling up a saved file on your computer. You wrote it down, it’s stored, and now it’s there when you need it later. When you keep overlearning or you keep practicing long after it’s been mastered, you strengthen the motor program in your brain, making it easier to retrieve the information later on. So it’s not just that it’s saved. When you first save it, that file might be backed up somewhere where you’ve got to go looking for it. When you overlearn, it’s right there, and you can access the information immediately.
Again, a lot of dancers stop the more intense repetitive training once they feel like a skill is mastered. Like, “All right, I’ve got it! Now I want to do the next hard thing.” But once you’ve mastered it, that’s just the beginning of your brain creating in a motor program. The more you overlearn or the more you keep going, the better that motor program is, and the more likely you can retrieve that specific skill onstage when you need it, and here’s the key: when you need it under pressure.
Have you ever had your brain wander onstage and then your body just keeps going and your brain catches up a few seconds later? That happens usually because you have a solid motor program in place, and that took over, so you didn't have to worry about it. Here’s a metaphor that helps a lot of athletes understand this that’s not about dance. So, to all my teachers out there, see if this helps.
Learning to Drive Metaphor – 6:53
Think about what it was like when you learned how to drive. Those first few times behind the wheel, you probably had a million things going through your mind. “Where do my hands go? I need the blinker. Look over my shoulder. Check the mirror. Blind spot check again.” There are so many things going on when you first learn because there are a lot of motor programs that have to work together. But now that you've been driving for years (if you have), you don't have to think about it very much.
Think of taking a simple right turn when the weather’s nice and there’s nothing big going on, use a blinker, check around you. It’s really straightforward. You don't have to spend a lot of mental energy to get it right. You could be jamming along to your favorite song, listening to a podcast, having a conversation with your friend, and you're not too distracted to complete the motor skill of driving.
The reason you can do it without being distracted is you have a motor program for how to use your body to accurately control the car without a lot of extra thought. You can tell you have a solid motor program if you try to drive a different vehicle and you have to really pay attention. Your motor program doesn't work in new cars. Every time I have a rental car, I have to spend time familiarizing myself with everything because my well-honed motor program is in my car. It doesn't necessarily work in a new place. So that’s how I know the motor program is so strong. I have to think really hard about how to override it.
Why Overlearning is Important for Dancers – 8:12
So back to dance. When your dancers are overlearning a skill, they're creating and cementing a motor program for that skill. You want that battement to be a perfect motor program that is the easy go-to that they do without thinking. Every time you drill your prep for a pirouette, you're creating a motor program of exactly what muscle placement and coordination you want your body to have every time you execute that skill. You don't want to stop drilling it once you get it right or once you have it mastered, if that’s even really possible. Once it’s good and solid, that’s when you have to start overtraining.
I understand this may not be news to you. We’ve all grown up training certain skills over and over and over. There are warm-up rituals we’ve repeated nearly every day since the beginning of time, and as a former professional ballet dancer, I have no idea how many pliés I’ve done. But what science didn't always understand until recently is why that overlearning matters, what’s happening in the brain, and how that translates to competitive success. So that’s the connection I want to help you make.
When you create a motor program for your pirouette prep, you're essentially creating a habit. It’s a motor skill habit, and when you've made something a habit, you're actually using a different part of your brain. As you overlearn, you're transitioning from one part of the brain to another. See, when you first learn a new skill, you often process that learning in a part of your brain that’s called the prefrontal cortex. It’s the part of your brain that’s right behind your forehead, and it’s responsible for a lot of really complex thoughts. So when we have to do a lot of planning or big decision making or impulse control, and it’s a lot of your personality in that part of your brain. Right behind your forehead, it’s like the really hard thought part of your brain.
So the first time you learn a new complex jump or some really fast-paced choreography, it takes a lot of thought, a lot of attention, a lot of mental power to execute that skill correctly. The first time you hear that complex musicality or the first time you try a new hip-hop style you’ve never done, it takes a lot of brain power to pull it off. But with training and overlearning, something amazing happens. Once you’ve learned that skill and can perform it correctly, you start the process of overlearning. You keep practicing and rehearsing a skill even after you're not really making meaningful improvements because once that skill becomes habit, you actually start to use a different part of your brain.
Performing Skills Out of Habit Onstage – 10:45
When you're performing a skill out of habit, it comes from a part of your brain that’s called the basal ganglia, and it’s now responsible for that motor program. It’s more automatic. You don't have to use the complex thoughts and reasoning part of your brain. Instead, you use the part of your brain responsible for habits. You have to train over and over again so the motor program moves to a different part of your brain, not the actively-thinking-hard-about-it part, but the barely-aware-of-it habit part of the brain.
Here’s why we care about that for competition or any really important performance. When a dancer takes the floor at competition, things get stressful usually. Maybe her body is influenced by these stress hormones, or his attention is strapped, making it difficult to focus. When you first take the stage, maybe the crowd’s going crazy, or you're looking for someone in the audience special that you want to see, or you notice a judge looks down and is starting to wonder, “Oh, will they look up to see the beginning?” or you notice a teammate is slightly off center and you wonder if you should try to fix it before the music starts. With all of this going on, dancers have such a hard time focusing, or there’s just this extra stress coming over you even just a little bit. That's when there’s potential for disaster in choking.
When we’re stressed and overwhelmed, we need to make a quick decision without time for internal debate. We can't sit down and reason through things and use that complex thought part of our brain, we will resort to whatever motor program is in the habit part of our brain. If we have time to focus and think about it, we could pause and use the prefrontal cortex or the complex thought. But if it’s crunch time and you're onstage and something happens and you have to make a quick decision, you will resort to the habit part of your brain.
That means, again, if something happens, like a transition is a little askew, or you catch your toe on something, or you get distracted for even a count and you start to panic, what motor program are you gonna use on the skill that comes next? Well, does the right motor program require that complex thought because it’s still new and not yet a habit, or will your body keep going and do the right thing because the habit brain is in charge? I hope you see that that’s the idea.
When we get past just learning it and go to overlearning it, then that skill goes from the complex thought part of the brain to the habit brain, and when it’s in your habit brain, that’s what’s gonna come out when you're stressed. If you’ve ever watched your dancers nail it in practice but they fall apart in times of stress, it’s possible their brain is overwhelmed during a competition so they resort to the autopilot response of the habit brain, which might be a bad habit you haven't had a chance to correct yet. Whatever habit you have drilled is our habit brain. That resource will be where you go in times of stress. So overlearning is helping you make the correct skills automatic and put them in the habit brain when you need them.
I’m sure your classes and practices already include repetitive drills for some of the more basic skills in our discipline. But there’s a reason even the most skilled ballet dancers in the world complete the same basic barre sequence before every show. But now I hope you understand there’s actually an important change in your brain that overlearning is helping you achieve. It’s also a little lesson you can teach your dancers the next time they roll their eyes at you when you say it’s time to drill their turn preps or something they feel like they already have mastered. When you say, “Do it again,” there’s a solid reason why. Do you want them to prep correctly when it counts on a competition floor, or resort to a bad habit because there isn't time to stop and think? We’re trying to create those positive habits.
If learning more about this skill or other mental skills is interesting to you, or if you're ready to level up your skills as a teacher, please join my free community of passionate dance teachers. I share resources, ideas, some validation of what we’re going through and support every week. You can sign up to receive a dose of mental skills training every Thursday by going to www.chelseapierotti.com/email or click the link in the show notes. There is so much to learn about helping your dancers be more successful through positive mental skills. Join in, let’s keep learning together, and of course, along with continually learning and growing, keep sharing your passion for dance with the world!
[Motional Outro Music]